The number of looked after children has reached a thirty-year high, with spending in this area accounting for over half of spending on children’s services in 2018-19. Despite the injection of an additional £542 million in 2018-19, councils continue to overspend. The scale of the challenge facing children’s services is such that it cannot be solved by more funding alone. An entirely new approach to service design and delivery focusing on prevention is required. This needs to be grounded in a much better understanding of the need of the children and families, as well as how the limited resources available could be better deployed to meet demand.
NLGN’s new report From Tiny Acorns: Communities shaping the future of children’s services argues that to ensure the future sustainability of children’s services, we need start in the community, through growing their capability and maximising the local assets.
The research identifies a number of innovative examples at the local level where councils and children’s services trusts have worked in partnership with the community to create change and improve outcomes for children and families around prevention and early intervention. Based on these examples, and drawing from NLGN’s think piece The Community Paradigm, the report outlines three broad principles that should guide the future design and delivery of children’s services:
- Encouraging community ownership and resourcefulness: Giving the community a greater sense of ownership of local assets such as children’s centres or community hubs encourages them to be inventive and resourceful, thus turning the culture of scarcity into abundance.
- Supporting early intervention and prevention through meaningful engagement: To build trust, relationships need to be nurtured through a long-term approach to family support that focuses on prevention.
- Towards a culture of partnership working: As councils and the community increasingly collaborate, the dynamic of their relationships will need to altered, handing over more decision making power to the community, and a culture of participation becoming a natural part of the community’s everyday life.
The recent commitments by the government to provide an additional £1.5 billion to ease pressure on social care, as well as to extend the Troubled Families Programme are both positive. But to maximise the momentum for change, the government needs to do more than simply providing more short-term funding. The government should work with local government and the community to provide a strong policy framework in order to shift the focus of children’s services decisively to prevention and early intervention. The report therefore sets out a number of recommendations, including:
- A new inspection framework for the care system based on local needs and outcomes should be developed to replace Ofsted’s current framework. This new framework should engage the community at key stages to capture local specificity.
- Given the funding shortfall for the foreseeable future, it is imperative that children’s services teams across the country give rigorous consideration to whether they are making the best use of the current available resources to improve outcomes for children and families.
- Councils should prioritise a shift to prevention by making children’s services an integrated part of the whole council vision and strategy.
- The government should reform the funding application process to incentivise partnership working and regional initiative, for example, through a ‘duty to cooperate’.
- The community should work in partnership with the council to develop a rolling programme of community-led workshops on asset-based approaches to care in children’s services.
To truly address the enormity of the problems facing children’s services, we need to address the roots, rather than the symptoms, of these challenges, and this requires both central and local governments to take some bold steps and ask some difficult questions. The recommendations in this report set out some important first steps to help shift the focus of children’s services to prevention, and tackle the roots of the challenges facing children’s services.
NLGN’s report From Tiny Acorns: Communities shaping the future of children’s services is authored by Pawda Tjoa.